In mid-May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tracked its highest-ever weekly CO2 levels in Earth’s atmosphere: 421.13 parts per million. According to ice core data, the last time atmospheric carbon dioxide reached that level was over 3 million years ago — before the evolution of Homo sapiens.
We have two chief takeaways from this data. One, more carbon in the atmosphere means it will retain more of the sun’s heat, so the Earth will continue to warm. Two, since this carbon is being spewed into the atmosphere on a global scale by modern industry, humans are rapidly altering the planet’s biosphere beyond the capacity of many life forms to adapt, so mass extinctions will only accelerate.
I count members of our own species among those life forms; the summer 2021 Pacific Northwest heat dome killed more than 800 people, and just last month a peer-reviewed model from the First Street Foundation indicated that an “extreme heat belt” with heat index temperatures reaching 125 degrees Fahrenheit would cover a large swathe of the United States by 2053.
These are not negotiable facts and estimates; they are based on solid repeated measurements and a consensus of thousands of scientists. Please understand this: if you “don’t believe” in climate change, you are in the same camp as people who think the Earth is flat, the Moon is made of cheese and COVID-19 is “a hoax.”
Jenny Offill’s 2020 climate change novel “Weather” is about all of this, sort of.
It’s a low-key narrative about Lizzie, a middle-class white woman who works in a library as she navigates the fluctuating emotional “weather” of 21st-century life in the Anthropocene — the era of human-induced environmental change on a planetary scale — although she herself has yet to experience any of its direct effects. When she lands a side gig working for Sylvia, who runs a popular climate change podcast, she has to confront the mounting reality like never before. Or actually, no, she doesn’t.
Weather is very funny. Offill manages to make humor out of the ways contemporary Westerners think, feel and especially distract themselves about things like species collapse, the warming globe and the pollution crisis by retreating into their own thoughts, entertainments and denial. It might even be necessary to do so, Offill hints, for their mental health.
All of the novel’s characters have highfalutin names: Catherine, Henry, Lizzie (Elizabeth), named after British royalty; Eli, from Hebrew (“high” or “elevated”); Sylvia, a forest nymph. But they’re just ordinary folks doing ordinary things as the Earth slowly boils. Similarly, the novel’s title plays on the difference between weather and climate. We say “climate change,” not “weather change,” because weather happens on a localized, daily level, while climate denotes larger worldwide trends over big stretches of time, which are harder for people to grasp and relate to. But it doesn’t make them less real.
Offill’s down-to-earth narrative makes such multiscalar perspectives — socio-spatial behavior in various hierarchies — thinkable through a variation of what the anthropologist Heather Anne Swanson calls “the banality of the Anthropocene.” The complicated ethics (interpersonal vs. environmentalist) involved come to the fore when Lizzie feels sorry for “Mr. Jimmy” (she only knows him by the name on his business card). She goes out of her way to support his floundering business — despite the avoidable carbon emissions it creates: “I used to take a car service only if I was going to be late, but now I find I am building in double the amount of travel time. A bus would be the same or faster. Also, I could afford it. But what if I am the only customer he has left?”
Lizzie’s is an act of kindness and fellow feeling, but scale this scene up to 100 million “Mr. Jimmys” and that’s a big part of the reason why we have a greenhouse effect.
“Weather” is full of scenes like that, written in short, telegraphic sections that mirror a Twitter feed. One of my students put it nicely: “It presents a very fragmented way of thinking that really represents how people think in the moment with our thoughts jumping from one idea to another almost instantly … how we stumble across different realizations about ourselves and the world around us.”
My notes on the novel attest to that approach and to Offill’s cutting satire: “Dog wants an ice cube;” “People are really sick of being lectured about glaciers;” “Choosing people for doomstead;” “What will be the safest place;” “Lizzie proud she stuffed a too-full garbage bag down the chute;” “Crazy doomer;” “Obligatory note of hope.”
At other times, Offill jolts the reader to attention, as when Lizzie’s son and husband are sitting at the kitchen table trying out some markers to see which still work: “Ben brings him a bowl of water so he can dip them in to test. According to the current trajectory, New York City will begin to experience dramatic, life-altering temperatures by 2047.”
This beautiful, hilarious and disquieting novel is absolutely about us, right here, right now — but it also recalls an earlier disaster. It’s essentially about how people rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic, as the iceberg closes in.
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